Doing More with Less
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
Read Part One here
When we’re writing synoptically—“sketchily,” that is—and wish to move on to parts of a story we intend to treat more fully, we run certain risks. One will consist of our seeming to be rushed, lacking the patience to do justice to our material. Another will consist of appearing to be detached, too little concerned as to whether we’re engaging our readers or not. Are we offering nothing more than a flat, dry recitation of what happened next?
The risks notwithstanding, synoptic writing is a very useful tool when we want certain passages to be essentially transitional, or else “informational.” Still: how might we manage, even while being cursory, to give to such passages a tang of the “here-and-now,” some existential immediacy for the characters involved?
Scanning and fixating
For an intriguing solution, let’s take a page from the visual arts. The artist Jackson Pollock advocated a strategy for “reading” his famously abstract paintings—for entering into and understanding them. And he called this strategy scanning and fixating.
In essence, the viewer browses or scans the painting, in search of visual “nodes” on which the eye can rest or fixate, which points of fixation help to organize the viewer’s perception of the painting as a whole.
This technique, by analogy, can furnish us as writers with a fascinating way of “punctuating” a passage that synoptically covers a substantial length of time so as to keep it from reading like a dry recitation.
Let’s turn to the opening pages of Tobias Wolff’s story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” the celebrated title story of Wolff’s first collection: Mary, the protagonist, is a timid academic whose career so far has been a limited success. She considers herself to be an unoriginal thinker, and after fifteen years, her college has to close because of bungled finances. For two years she teaches at an experimental college in Oregon when an invitation comes from Louise, a former colleague, to apply for a job where Louise now teaches. The invitation constitutes the story’s turning point.
This span in Mary’s career—a full seventeen years—is effectively “scanned” in Wolff’s first three pages, in eleven compact paragraphs of some 740 words. It’s chronologically narrated, devoid of live speech, and serves as prologue to the story’s main action.
No friends of Mary’s or intimate partners are ever referred to in these opening pages. She associates with others, but is very much a loner. Were we asked, up to the turning point, what “recommends” her to us as a character worthy of our adult interest, we’d be hard-pressed to answer. Wolff’s tone is detached—indeed, almost clinical. Is there anything that invites us to engage with this woman, or prompts so spare a narration to command our attention?
The “fixating” strategy
We turn to the concept of nodes on which to fixate, as described in Pollock’s technique for scanning his paintings.
What Wolff does quite brilliantly in these prefatory paragraphs is to zoom in selectively on Mary’s subjective experience, putting a momentary spotlight on her specific thoughts and feelings. The effect of these nodes is to stall the forward “rush” of the synoptic overview and lend the whole passage a sense of dramatic immediacy.
Mary is, indeed, a somewhat surreal character—the story as a whole has a surreal cast—and Wolff’s treatment of these moments is clearly not intended to generate the sympathy we normally experience with likable characters. The “nodal” moments entail vivid figures of speech that point up the oddity of Mary’s thoughts and circumstances.
Let’s look at selected instances (italics and boldface mine):
Before giving a lecture she wrote it out in full, using the arguments and often the words of other, approved writers… Her own thoughts she kept to herself, and the words for them grew faint as time went on; without quite disappearing they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.
The things she said and wrote seemed flat to her, pulpy, as though someone else had squeezed the juice out of them.
And, while she’s teaching in Oregon:
On rainy days condensation formed in Mary’s hearing aid and shorted it out. She began to dread talking with people, never knowing when she would have to take out her control box and slap it against her leg.
When it was not raining it was getting ready to rain, or clearing. The ground glinted under the grass, and the light had a yellow undertone that flared up during storms.
Her walls sweated, and she had found toadstools growing behind the refrigerator. She felt as though she were rusting out, like one of those old cars people thereabouts kept in their front yards, on pieces of wood. Mary knew that everyone was dying, but it did seem to her that she was dying faster than most.
These last three excerpts, which immediately precede her receiving the invitation, constitute a crescendo, almost apocalyptic, in the desperation Mary feels about her circumstances. The vivid images in these nodes, moreover, entail deliberate “plants” that become especially significant as the story reaches its climax.
The balance of the story finds Mary treated brutally by her academic hosts, and Wolff takes pains to spare none of her afflicters—the narcissistic Louise and her fatuous new colleagues, the college where they teach having been built in imitation of a more famous one, its “illustrious” alumni largely a band of robber barons.
The interview is a sham, one meant to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement—a woman must be considered for every academic opening. All hope lost, Mary must still deliver a lecture to the faculty and students. Entirely unprepared, not having been forewarned—she who has always written out all her lectures!—she reluctantly consents to read an article of Louise’s, one never published.
That’s not what happens. Instead of reading Louise’s essay, she decides to speak extempore, thinking she’d “rather die” than ape Louise’s words. In the story’s gripping climax, her impromptu choice of topic utterly astounds Louise and her colleagues—and poses for the reader an interpretive quandary: has Mary, indeed, gone completely “over the edge”… or has she finally found her voice at whatever cost, and can now assert herself?
“Scanning and fixating” paying dividends
Space thwarts our wish to gain a fuller understanding of Wolff’s deployment of the imagery planted in the nodes. But we mustn’t leave the story without appreciating, in part, how the scanning and fixating prepares for what follows.
When Mary arrives for the interview, not far from Syracuse, Louise’s gaunt face reminds her “of a description in the book she had been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting.” So, she’s in Iroquois country—the home of the Five Nations! During her plane flight east, “Mary [had] felt like she was going home. The feeling stayed with her, growing stronger when they landed… ‘It’s like déjà vu,’ she said.”
The brutality of the Iroquois serves as both the theme of her impromptu talk and as the culmination of the story’s fire imagery. Mary is figuratively burned at the stake, like the Jesuits Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement, captured and tortured in March of 1649.
The preparation for her immolation has been planted in the prologue while she’s teaching in Oregon, where (again) “the ground glinted under the grass, and the light had a yellow undertone that flared up during storms.” And now, as she prepares to give her talk, “The sun poured through the stained glass onto the people around her, painting their faces. Thick streams of smoke from the young professor’s pipe drifted through a circle of red light at Mary’s feet, turning crimson and twisting like flames.” And when Mary has come to the end of her “facts,” not knowing what Brébeuf had actually said while enduring his torment, “Silence rose up around her; just when she thought she would go under and be lost in it she heard someone whistling in the hallway outside, trilling the notes like a bird, like many birds.”
This bird-song image is likewise “retrieved” from earlier in the story, from that time when Mary kept her thoughts to herself, such that (again) “without quite disappearing they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.” The whistling in the hall affords her the cue for finally giving vent her righteous indignation. Ironically, she’s “winging” it, as Louise had earlier suggested she might.
So, Mary launches herself into bold new territory: “Mend your lives… You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts, and the strength of your arms. Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord…”
She has turned her hearing aid off so she will not be deterred.
An alternative application of “scanning and fixating”
Wolff’s story stands out among those that I know as singular in the economy with which it achieves its prefatory aims through what I’ve called here “scanning and fixating.”
When I consider other stories using a version of this strategy, I turn to Bobbie Ann Mason’s masterful story, “Shiloh.”
In “Shiloh,” the nodes on which the reader will fixate take a different form—not (as in Wolff’s story) of the central character’s subjective experience, infused with striking images, but what we might call here “mini-dialogues”—very short passages of verbatim speech, bits of conversation set (as gems are set) into the prologue leading to the story’s main action. The effect, again, is to stall the forward “rush” of the synoptic overview and prevent it from reading like a dry recitation of what happened next.
The narrative in “Shiloh” is more fluid and meandering than it is Wolff’s story, but Mason wastes no time in fixating our attention, right as the story opens, with a “mini-dialogue” (italics mine):
“I’d give anything if I could just get these muscles to where they’re real hard,” says Norma Jean. “Feel this arm. It’s just not as hard as the other one.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re right-handed,” says Leroy, dodging as she swings the barbell in an arc.
“Do you think so?”
Then comes the narrative that puts this in context: it’s been four months since the mishap that has unsettled Norma Jean and Leroy’s marriage—a truck-driving injury that has left Leroy home-bound. Norma Jean is attending a body-building class to help her deal with her frustration.
For the next twelve paragraphs of some 752 words completing the prologue, we get “backstory.” Leroy, home now, is much at loose ends, thinking he’ll build a log cabin for Norma Jean, who works in cosmetics at a local drug store. Their marriage has been shadowed by the death of their son Randy some months after their wedding many years ago, and Leroy is hoping they can somehow start afresh.
Mini-dialogues “punctuating” the preface: securing our interest
We’re as unlikely reading “Shiloh” as we are Wolff’s story to regard the key characters as “elevated” people. Mason’s tone, not unlike Wolff’s, is detached, drily ironic.
So again, the writer’s challenge is to establish our connection with the characters involved. And the nodes Mason employs consist of a “sprinkling” of mini-dialogues across the story’s preface. As prosaic as Leroy and Norma Jean might be, they are, like the best of us, living their lives, immersed in their circumstances, and the sound of their voices—verbatim speech will always do this—draws us close to them, fixates them for us as “proximate” figures with whom we engage:
“They won’t let you build a log cabin in any of the new subdivisions,” Norma Jean tells him.
“They will if I tell them it’s for you,” he says teasing her.
… And after Leroy has bought Norma Jean an electric organ, which she quickly masters:
“I didn’t like those old songs back then,” she said. “But I have this crazy feeling I missed something.”
“You didn’t miss a thing,” said Leroy.
These fixated moments, along with others like them, some just single lines of dialogue, lend a subtle poignancy to this inherently tragic story. Mabel, Norma Jean’s mother, has goaded the couple to go visit the historic battlefield at Shiloh, where they’ve picnicked near the graveyard. At the story’s dizzying conclusion, Norma Jean has walked away toward the edge of the cliff while Leroy hobbles after her:
Norma Jean has reached the bluff, and she is looking out over the Tennessee River. Now she turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles. The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed.
It’s hard not to surmise that Norma Jean is going to leap.
Wolff’s story and Mason’s, so unalike in many ways, share more than the technique of scanning and fixating: in both, the protagonist feels trapped by her circumstances and seeks ambiguously —the reader must judge—to resolve her dilemma through a self-destructive act.
We’ve yet, moving forward in this ongoing series, to take a look at the ways in which our eye misdirects us—that “altering eye” of Blake’s that “alters all”—together with the benefits we can harvest as writers from the eye’s unsteady gaze.
Those issues are up next!